19 April 2008

When to Hold 'Em? When to Fold 'Em?

Over the past few years, I've observed a much needed, very welcome surge of awareness and discussion, happening mostly in cyberspace but also in genuine "Self-Help" publishing, regarding abuse, abusiveness, human interpersonal predation, and related topics.

Books like "Without Conscience", "The Sociopath Next Door", "Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It", and my current favorite, "Snakes in Suits", broach these topics as they relate to our daily lives. To the people we pass on the street, sit next to on the subway, stand in line behind at the grocery store, come home to, worship alongside, and work with.

Blogs like "Narcissists Suck", "What Makes Narcissists Tick", "The Narcissistic Continuum", and others [see links at right] describe journeys from confusion and unresolvable pain - to awareness and the necessary pain it brings - to healing. The authors share what they have learned about recognizing, surviving, and ultimately escaping abuse in various contexts; abusive parents, spouses, places of worship.

This blog, too, is dedicated to sharing information about recognition, survival, and ultimate escape from abuse.

At this point, it seems appropriate to discuss abuse as a 'systems' problem, because this aspect of abuse - abuse as a systemic phenomenon - often hinders or delays a person's ability to escape completely, once the abusive nature of the system is recognized.

Most readers of this blog are familiar with Karpman dynamics: the repetitive drama of rescue and betrayal that plays out over and over again in alcoholic, otherwise addicted, and violent families; but also in abusive families, churches, and offices. And most readers will be familiar with the "No Contact" solution, described in depth and detail by Anna Valerious, which is, essentially, the only way to leave a Karpman trap, or to fully constrain an unregenerate abuser in one's family or circle of friends.

Readers are also well aware of the massive societal pressure brought to bear on those who successfully leave cults, abusive churches, and especially abusive families. There is an incredible degree of denial in our culture, engendered by groupthink, regarding abuse in families, social settings, and places of worship. Those who see the problem and break denial are, routinely, branded as troublemakers for disrupting the status quo... and the fact that the status quo, the stability of the system in question, is a toxic pseudo-stability, purchased by scapegoating specific individuals, is NEVER admitted or expressed. Such is the nature of groupthink, and such is the nature of abusive group dynamics.

When the abusive system is a person's "family of origin", awareness and escape can be incredibly difficult - but, societally, there are some approved escape routes. The mechanism is 'dispersion'. A child of abusive parents can, under the right circumstances, leave an abusive family for schooling, for employment, and, eventually, to form a "family of choice" with a spouse or partner. However, these options are more freely available to some than to others. A 'Cinderella' daughter - the kind of chore-bound childhood Anna Valerious describes - may be deliberately overloaded with tasks, while opportunities outside the family are closed off as much as possible; the family may be moved to an isolated, rural setting; alcoholic or mentally ill parents may demand constant caretaking and even pull the children out of school to isolate them completely [a horrific recent example being the apparent mass murder of her four daughters by Banita Jacks, in Washington D.C.] And in many cases, the child has one abusive parent, and one enabling parent, and the enabling parent is pitied or loved enough to make the choice to vanish cruelly hard, if not impossible. But there are, at least, societal expectations - a 'life narrative' available - that make allowances for growing up and leaving home. And children of abusive parents can, and do, use this narrative as a psychological Underground Railroad to freedom.

When the abusive system is a person's "family of choice", escape can be more difficult, and its challenges more complex. This is especially true for abused spouses when there are dependent children and/or animals to consider - but society does have some narratives of escape and survival for these situations, and increased awareness of the issues is leading to more options and less stigmatization. It is now understood, for example, that one reason women will not leave a batterer is that batterers will often harm or kill their pets or children in retaliation. In the past five years, women's shelters have realized this, taken it seriously, and begun to provide ways for women to bring their loved animals, as well as their children, safely away from their abusers. But this is not yet the norm, and it is therefore still difficult and challenging for many women to escape. When a remorseless abuser holds your loved ones hostage, your freedom is dearly purchased if it comes at the price of their welfare, or even their lives. Few people of conscience will make such a choice. To condemn these people for choosing self-sacrifice over self-preservation at the cost of others' wellbeing is, in many ways, a greater betrayal than their primary abusers have committed.

When the abusive system is a church or a workplace, awareness itself can be hellishly difficult to attain - and although there are more 'life narratives' that allow for escape in this situation than in most others, escape itself can be long in coming. Escape will be easiest when the abusiveness is obvious, identified early, and few 'irrevocable' commitments have been made. Someone who has taken a job with several other offers available, stayed in the same house or apartment, and realizes within a matter of weeks that they were hired under false pretenses and are going to be exploited, can far more easily turn to one of the other offers as a possible means of escape, than someone who has moved out of state, sold their house, and just closed on a new home. Similarly, a young person with a healthy family, a supportive and well employed spouse, or a 'workable hobby' - such as decorating, catering, landscaping, etc. - will have options and escape routes that are simply not available to [for example] a man in his late 50s with diabetes and heart disease, or a single mother with two children in college. And heaven help the dedicated, long-term employee who has served an organization faithfully and well for 20 years, and finds himself working for an abusive new boss - who happens to be the CEO's college roommate - following a major reorganization. Such things happen.

Moreover, although the 'self-help' industry paints rosy pictures of people walking out on nasty bosses and into fast-track jobs that earn them Vice Presidencies in a matter of months, reality is often very different. Many people escape one hellish work environment only to discover that they have landed in another one - and are now without the seniority, or lateral networking connections, that might have offered some protection in the previous setting. A quick exit may not lead to a safer place. It may take time to find a genuinely healthy environment, particularly for those who work in areas that attract abusers [think money, fame, prestige, or power over other human beings].

And now and then, a person will choose to remain in an abusive work situation for the sake of others - to finish paying for the children's education, or to buy time for other colleagues to escape, or because they are so placed [think Enron] that they may be able to do some generalized 'damage control' as they prepare their escape routes. Again, it is risky to judge when one does not know all the factors involved.

When to hold 'em? When to fold 'em?

I have often defined adulthood, to friends in realspace, as "a series of forced choices between unpleasant alternatives" - life offers you either brussels sprouts or broccoli, when you long for ice cream. A large part of adulthood involves learning how to see what is really there, accept without endorsing what is not good but not yet changeable, and working to find ways to change what can realistically be changed, in such a way that the solution is not more harmful to you - and those you love - than the present problem.

Leave the abuse you can; face the abuse you cannot yet leave; and do all you can to find an honest, constructive way out. This may not be easy, but it's the only reality we've got; and it's a lot less painful, in the long run, than living on myths and fairytales.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to that.

One thing to add, God is still there to guide us through, even when we can't find him in the night. He holds us, and folds us in his loving arms, and when the still small voice finally breaks through, we know that he never left us for a moment.

God keep you, as you keep on.

20 April, 2008 06:34  
Blogger CZBZ said...

I fully agree with your comments about women [in particular] who choose to stay in an abusive environment. Over the past few years, my awareness has been expanded to the fact that women make choices based on the 'right thing to do' for the sake of their children. I believe we pathologize women who stay---in the erroneous belief they are helpless victims.

For some, leaving is the best option and i'm grateful to see so many shelters and support networks helping them reconstruct their lives.

For others, leaving increases the danger she will be murdered by an angry spouse and thus abandon her children to their fates.

We all make complicated decisions on what we need to do now that we are aware our 'family system' is abusive.

The fact that many women encourage their partner to STOP his abuse, is far too often demeaned as her neuroses, which is an unfair criticism of her efforts to change the abusive environment. Leaving is not necessarily better than staying if the realistic limitations in her life restrict her freedom to support herself and her children.

For this reason, I have come to understand the importance of solidarity without isolating an abused women by pathologizing her choices. There are countless numbers of people who for very good reasons of their own, decide to Stay. They need our support, perhaps even more than those who choose to leave.

Human relationships, even narcissistic relationships, are far too complex to reduce to either-or options. Unfortunately, groupthink's unquestioned narcissism reduces toleration for difference.

Great message, Stormchild. As usual, you make me think.


22 April, 2008 13:27  
Blogger TH in SoC said...

I have a big favor to ask. I also am a survivor of a spiritually abusive church. On my blog, TH in SoC, I have been discussing my experiences in the abusive church I attended and my experiences with American evangelicalism after leaving my abusive church. I was wondering if you would like to send me your answers to some questions that I will be publishing in an upcoming post. The questions are as follows:

1.Have you experienced abuse within an “evangelical” church? What did you do about it? Have you since joined another church?
2.My blog, TH in SoC, has discussed several problems relating to American evangelicalism. Do you agree with my assessment? Do you see any problems I missed?
3.Do you believe that churches in America are safe places? If not, what are two or three things that would make them safer?

If you leave your answers as a comment on http://thinsoc.blogspot.com, I'd really appreciate it. If you'd rather not, I certainly understand. And if you don't mind, I will post a link to your blog on my next post. If you'd rather not publish this comment, feel free to delete it. Thanks again!

19 July, 2008 00:49  
Blogger Stormchild said...

TH in SoC:

I'm reading your blog - blogs - I notice you have two - thank you for the backlink to your profile and bloglist!

English is a very frustrating language. I want to say that I am enjoying your blog very much, but that is not quite right, because I'm not at all enjoying the fact that you went through a LOT on your way to writing it.

But it is a great pleasure to read you, I plan to continue, and I'm glad you posted here.

You're more than welcome to link to my blog.

I'm going to post a link to your blog here, too, if I may, and I will definitely answer your questions, although it will take a little time [I want to read more of your posts before answering #2, to get a good sense of where you stand and what you've seen].

Thank you very much, again, for commenting and providing a link.

To be continued :-).

19 July, 2008 20:59  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Ai yi yi; Meg, CZ - I posted your comments and never came back to reply. Very sorry.

Meg, amen to you as well. God is always there. We may not always feel the Presence, but God is always there.

CZ, thank you. It's easy to oversimplify other people's problems... and you're right, groupthink is VERY intolerant of even the smallest differences... there's good reason for that. Awareness of differences can ultimately lead to awareness of deceit, which breaks the spell of groupthink and of abuse.

belated best wishes,


19 July, 2008 21:15  

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